How to Make a PDF Book That’s Realistic

by Joel Friedlander on July 11, 2011 · 12 comments

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The PDF (Adobe’s Portable Document Format) version of your book has become a key component in the entire book production workflow. At different stages of production, the PDF might be used for:

  • Sending rough layout proofs to an author or publisher
  • Showing sample pages with treatments for photos, illustrations or tab composition
  • First galley proofs
  • Page proofs
  • Editing and proofreading copies
  • Final reproduction for print
  • Reviewer copies
  • e-book conversion
  • Archiving
  • Retailing

It’s good to know how to make a PDF book. There’s a market for books in PDF format, especially for heavily illustrated books, art books and photography books. Whether you decide to offer your book for sale directly from your website in PDF or not, you are going to use the PDF of your book for lots of marketing and publicity tasks.

For instance, on a review campaign you might offer reviewers the book in ePub, Kindle, print or PDF versions. I’ve found lots of reviewers like the PDFs. You can deliver the book as quick as sending an email, and it’s an exact replica of the printed book.

Manipulating PDFs

The best tool I’ve used for manipulating PDF files is Adobe’s Acrobat Pro. If you have Acrobat Pro or another program that will allow you to add and replace pages, you’ll be able to use these simple tips to making realistic PDFs to give away, sell, or use for promotion. (For information on some other PDF tools, see the Resources at the end of this article.)

Unlike the typical ebooks you find online, most of which are letter-size, landscape and look more like presentations than books, these PDFs look exactly like a printed book. After all, the printed books are made from the PDFs. In a PDF you see the book in its idealized, perfect form.

Here’s how I created this PDF of Glenbrook Press’ Payments Systems in the U.S. so that it was a true representation of the printed book.

  1. I output the complete interior as an Acrobat PDF/X-1a file from Adobe InDesign.
  2. Then I exported the flat cover as a JPEG from InDesign.
  3. In Adobe Photoshop I cut the cover into separate files for the front and back, and saved them as PDFs.
  4. I also created a “blank” page that was just a white page.
  5. In Acrobat Pro, I added the front cover followed by a blank page as the first 2 pages in the file.
  6. I set the File/Document Properties to make the book display as 2-page spreads, like you would see when a printed book is laid open.

PDF document properties

Here’s how the cover and first spread look in the finished file. This is exactly the effect I was going for.

Cover and opening spread in the PDF version

I did the same thing at the back of the book, so the “illusion” is complete.

Glenbrook - Payments Systems

The last spread and the back cover

Fun With Hardcovers

If you want to get fancy and you have a jacketed hardcover, you can do the same thing. Here, for Larry Jacobson’s The Boy Behind the Gate, I exported the jacket file from InDesign as a JPG. In Photoshop I created files for both the front and back flaps. Making these into pages of their own, with white backgrounds, I was able to imitate the look of a hardcover pretty successfully:

Jacobson- The Boy Behind the Gate

Front cover and first spread with "flap"

And here’s the same treatment at the back of the book:

Jacobson - The Boy Behind the Gate

Last spread with back "flap" and back cover complete the book

Whether you’re selling the PDF as a full-fledged book or just using it for online reviewers, it makes sense to put your best PDF forward. Making it look like a copy of the print book will give you a much more attractive PDF e-book to work with.

A Bit of Advice: Get the PDF Files

No matter who does the layout on your book be sure to get a PDF of the final, corrected version as it went to print. Whether your printer is a print on demand supplier, or an offset printer, your designer most likely supplied them with a complete reproduction-quality PDF of both the book interior and the cover or jacket.


More software for working with PDF Files
Adobe Acrobat Pro
Adobe InDesign and Photoshop

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resources for self-publishers

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    { 11 comments… read them below or add one }

    Michael D Gorman February 27, 2015 at 11:53 am

    Great information, as far as making books from PDF’s is concerned you can indeed make a similar standard book using tools like MS Word which of course has a PDF filter already installed, so you can adjust the JPG’s and ‘flaps’ using GIMP, or even Pixlr then simply save-as PDF the finished book you need Word 2007 as a minimum – but you can produce this result without needing to invest in all that Adobe expense – Cheers


    Judith van Praag October 15, 2012 at 6:42 am

    Joel, Your post is just the push I need to make the book I published as a paperback in 1999 available in e-format. Great suggestions in the comments as well. I’ve pulled out the PDF and am going to follow your lead. Y’all are most generous!


    rasa February 3, 2012 at 1:39 am

    Another amazingly useful post, Joel. Thank you!


    Alexa Whitten July 20, 2011 at 2:22 am

    Great post, thank you. I love your hardback replication idea.

    I often offer PDF versions of my client’s books, as they then give these away to their list, and then offer the printed version once the client has downloaded it. A very high percentage of people end up buying the book, which shows that printed versions, are in fact, still in vogue :)

    I have yet to get acrobat pro, however I use a great little freebie program, called PDFsam – which is a splitter and merger. I use Quark Xpress 7 – and so I export all of my chapters to PDF – then use this programme to bind them all together – along with the cover (which I’ve split, like you, the front going at the beginning of the book, and the back cover going at the end) – you can get this programme at – I highly recommend it.


    Chris O'Byrne July 12, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    Another amazingly useful post, Joel. Thank you! This is exactly what I needed to show my print publishing clients a PDF proof.


    Mike Perry July 12, 2011 at 8:52 am

    I should have noted that Adobe’s formal requirements for InDesign upgrades are here:

    Note that owning a registered copy of Pagemaker 6 or 7 or InDesign CS2, 3, or 4 will get you InDesign 5.5 for $199. That’s the version with lots of new ebook features. Since Pagemaker has been discontinued, you can often pick up a copy for a pittance. And you won’t have to blow $410 (Amazon) on the latest version of Acrobat Pro.

    –Michael W. Perry, author of Untangling Tolkien


    Joel Friedlander November 1, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    Mike, sorry I missed these comments when you made them, but thanks for your extensive contribution and the links to LSI documents.

    I prefer using Distiller and have rescued many client files by using it in conjunction with Acrobat Pro, but most authors have no need of this software, and I’m glad that you’ve presented alternatives.


    Mike Perry July 12, 2011 at 8:42 am

    Mac users might want to look into using PDFPen Pro instead of Adobe Acrobat Pro. It’s has 90% of the features of Acrobat Pro in an easier to use package at a fraction of the price.

    Also, I should comment about this posting: “Lightning Source requires that your PDF be converted to a PostScript file and be run through Acrobat Distiller (which come with Acrobat Pro). CreateSpace will accept a “raw” PDF.”

    I’ve been publishing with Lightning Source for 11 years and I’ve been distributing PDF books commercially through them for about 8 years. LSI has no PS through Distiller requirement. It’s merely one of the work flows they suggest. I’ve been using InDesign, which has its own PDF engine, for about six years without a single problem. This link will give you Lightning’s file creation guide:

    Also, keep in mind that using software designed for creating business letters (i.e. Microsoft Word) isn’t the best way to create high-quality paged documents, either printed books or PDFs. It’s a bit like using a station wagon to delivery gravel.

    My workflow is Scrivener (a marvelous writer’s tool) to InDesign for printed/PDF books and Scrivener direct to ePub and Kindle for digital books. Cut Word out of the loop.

    InDesign doesn’t have to be expensive. Get an used but registrable old version of InDesign or any version of PageMaker, and you can upgrade to the latest InDesign for $200. That’s less than a Word plus Acrobat combination and, once you learn InDesign, admittedly a steep learning curve, the books you create will look infinitely better and be based on top quality PDFs.


    Gordon Burgett July 11, 2011 at 10:53 am

    Excellent suggestions, and much appreciated cover placement details. PDF is a godsend, particularly for books with lots of images and charts.


    Joel Friedlander July 11, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    Thanks, Gordon. I’m still looking for good e-book retailers who actually sell PDF books in quantity. Know any good ones?


    Michael N. Marcus July 11, 2011 at 2:32 am

    Primitive self-publishers like me who use MS Word to format book interiors can easily make PDF versions if they’ve installed Adobe Acrobat Pro.

    Simply select “Print” and then specify Adobe PDF as the printer, select some properties such as page size, DPI and “press quality,” name the file, and in a minute or less (depending on file size and PC speed) you’ll have your PDF.

    If you display the pages as “two-up” you should see the proper verso-recto configuration. A PDF will usually reveal many more errors than you’ll find in a Word doc, so Acrobat is a worthwhile investment. You can save some money if you buy an older version on eBay. Educator discounts are available for the current version “X.”

    Lightning Source requires that your PDF be converted to a PostScript file and be run through Acrobat Distiller (which come with Acrobat Pro). CreateSpace will accept a “raw” PDF.

    Michael N. Marcus (information, help and book reviews for authors) (pre-publication book assessments)
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series:
    — “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),”


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